Friday, June 29, 2007

Draft Madness, the Day After

Nobody Drafted Me
One thing should be crystal clear after last night’s NBA draft and that is that NBA GM’s clearly do not give a flying fuck what S.O.L. says.

I’d like to go on record as saying that this is most definitely a good thing.

First things first. The Trailblazers played it safe by picking the one thing you can’t teach – size – in selecting Greg Oden at number one. From everything I read, it was a tough decision for Portland GM Kevin Pritchard who had to make the seemingly impossible choice between Oden and Kevin Durant, who Jay Bilas on ESPN called a “scoring savant” which is not only right on but a great line to boot. By the way, S.O.L. wants to give props to Bilas who far outshined the crew they had for ESPN’s NBA draft coverage.

If your panel of experts includes Steven A. Smith and Mark Jackson, it’s not like you have to do that much to stand out, but Bilas routinely provided hype-less reads on each pick. He was fun to listen to and I’m pretty sure unlike Steven A., he didn’t blow out his microphone speaker once. Meanwhile Steven A. and Dick Vitale (who made some cameo appearances from his home in Sarasota, Florida) seemed intent on having seeing who could scream the loudest. This is another historic moment in the History of Television when it’s okay to bow down a kiss the floor and praise God for the mute button.

But I digress. Durant would have been a solid pick for the Blazers but they went with the sure thing in Oden who by all accounts is the same type of character guy as Tim Duncan. The one thing Bilas did hype up was his belief that Oden will hang a championship flag in Portland. It’s a lot to put on even the very ample shoulders of a 20-year-old before he’s even played one minute of NBA basketball, but I don’t think there’s anybody around the NBA who doesn’t agree that Oden is that once a decade pick that can turn a losing franchise into a perennial title contender.

Durant ain’t half bad either. It’s true that the Sonics had the easiest pick in the draft’s history. At number two, all they had to do was sit back, wait for Portland’s selection, then pick whoever the Blazers passed up on.

Durant is an unstoppable scorer in the mold of a Kobe Bryant, although he has much better range than Kobe did at his age (18 at the moment) and not so much of what New York Times columnist Selena Roberts calls “gall” in a very biting column published this morning.

Both teams made big trades during the draft with Seattle sending Ray Allen to the Celtics for the number five pick which turned out to be Georgetown forward Jeff Green. Not sure why Seattle chose Green and not a guard but Green is a serious talent and the right coach (the Sonics don’t have one at the moment) might really make something special out of this pairing.

Meanwhile, Portland sent troubled forward Zach Randoph to the New York Knicks, who at this point appear to be willing to take anybody. The trade destroys any hope that my hometown Knicks will be under the cap through the next millennium. But heck, if Randolph and Eddy Curry can find a way to work together, the Knicks will have an extremely formidable front line. Starbury is still a serviceable point guard if not the star everyone once anointed him to be and Jamal Crawford emerged as a go-to guy before he was hurt last year. David Lee at the forward. Some hardworking energy guys off the bench. Heck, in the Easy East, the Knicks could easily be playoff bound.

I think the Celtics helped themselves in the short run and time will tell if they helped their future with second-round picks of Greg Pruitt and Glen “Big Baby” Davis. Both guys could make an impact in the NBA some day. Or they could fade into obscurity. Like I said, time will tell.

I think the Golden State Warriors got better with their trade of Jason Richardson to the Bobcats for the no. 8 pick, which was North Carolina forward Brandon Wright. Anytime you can get a lottery pick when you make a deep run into the playoffs is a great thing and this is the type of pick that could really help the Warriors in the short run. I do think they will be active in the trade market once free agent signings begin and now they have themselves $10 million to spend since they were able to dump JRich’s contract for a lottery pick who they can pay much less obviously.

I’ll have more on the draft in the coming days but I would be remiss in not grading out the L.A. Lakers draft. A lot of folks think they did okay with their two picks but I think they could have done better, which what was out there. And them not making a trade for a guy like Randolph, who apparently was available for not much (the Knicks sent overpriced Steve Francis and the underachieving Channing Frye), is just more proof how ineffective Mitch Kupchak is. There’s still Jermaine O’Neal out there for the taking – if the Lakers are willing to part with Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom in the same deal but right now they say they won’t do that.

Whatever. Kobe Bryant probably threw a chair through his plasma t.v. last night. Cause if one thing’s for sure, Black Mamba isn’t going anywhere this summer.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Draft Madness, The Day Before

Healdsburg at Night
Tomorrow's NBA draft is looking like a can't miss for drama and intrigue with even the no-brainer nos. 1 and 2 picks looking like a toss up at this point. I wouldn't blame Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard for taking Kevin Durant at number one, instead of the consensus pick of Greg Oden.

The reason why everybody thinks Oden should go first is that the history of the NBA has proven two things pretty conclusively. The first is that a dominant big man (on offense or defense or both) is essential to a championship run. Think Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, for starters. The second is that dominant big men are about as rare as a Kobe Bryant assist. (Throw out rules one and two if Michael Jordan is on your team).

The theory goes that if you can land a 7-footer who has a pulse and doesn’t trip over his own size-20 kicks, you’re way ahead of the game. If he happens to have soft hands and quick feet, then you’re in very elite company. It is widely believed that Greg Oden is such a player, even though he spent exactly one year in college and only played about half the season because of a thumb injury.

He's got the whole package for sure. He's agile, can score with his back to the basket and is an adept defender and shot blocker. He seems motivated and smart and with a little time in the weight room and some good old-fashioned NBA experience, he's got the goods to be the dominant big man everybody thinks he could be.

So if you've got the number one pick, you're supposed to say screw what your team needs, just take the big fella and build around him. If you were to do that, they say, everything else will take care of itself. It's hard to argue with success. Harder still to argue against Oden when you take a gander at this still-filling out frame and hear him say things about winning and teamwork and oh, that irresistible lopsided smile. Truly, he is a can't miss, sure thing NBA number one pick. Whew. Game over, right?

Well .... let's back up a second, shall we?

The Portland Trailblazers were the surprise recipients of the number one big during the draft lottery drawing earlier this month. I say surprise because the NBA is I believe the only league where the worst team doesn’t automatically get to pick first in the ensuring draft. This is to prevent said worst team from tanking games at the end of the season to assure itself the number one pick. The Trailblazers, it should be duly noted, suck so getting the first pick isn’t exactly going to make them title contenders. Not yet, anyway. Still, they had a five percent shot at getting the top pick and wouldn’t you know it, the ping pong balls came out upper Northwest.

The Blazers finished fourth in the Western Conference’s Northwest Division with a record of 32-50. Presently their roster looks like this:

F-C: LaMarcus Aldridge
G: Dan Dickau
G: Jarrett Jack
F: Raef LaFrentz
F-G: Darius Miles
C: Joel Przybilla
F: Zach Randolph
G: Sergio Rodriguez
G: Brandon Roy
G-F: Martell Webster

Free Agents:
C: Jamaal Magloire
F: Travis Outlaw
F: Ime Udoka

Aldridge, Jack and Brandon Roy are serious ballers and make for a very tidy core for the Blazers. If the Blazers decide to hang onto sometime knucklehead Randolph, then Oden might not be the ideal fit for them. Sure, they could use another rebounder what with Randolph having to shoulder the burden (23 points, 10 boards last season) but what the Blazers really need is a true scorer. A guy who can take the load off Randolph offensively and who can make the most out of a team that is loaded with ball-handlers and distributors.

So, when do you pass up on a sure-thing big man with the number one pick?

When the second pick in the draft is every bit as promising as the first.

At 6-foot-9, former Texas phenom Kevin Durant is not a true big man but he plays a big, big game. Inside, outside, upside your head, he’s the type of player who makes defenses seem invisible.

Definitely skinny for a guy who weights 225 pounds but I swear he could be like Magic if he had the hops of M.J. Stir that in with your bowl of Wheatina for a second.

College statistics should be tempered due to the wide range of competition (or lack thereof) but Durant’s numbers cannot be ignored, especially since Texas opponents had only one game plan from the get go last year: stop Kevin Durant. Man child still went for 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds as a freshman.

We’re talking 47.3 percent from the field, 40.4 percent from beyond the arc and nearly two blocks a game besides. I like Durant in part because he sounds like a kid who gives a shit and because he wears no. 35 to honor his AAU coach who died at that age. And he’s from Washington, D.C., where I spent a good part of my misspent youth. It’s all good.

I imagine there will be an outcry of mammoth proportions if the Blazers go against conventional wisdom and select Durant but I won’t be part of that chorus.

I truly believe you cannot go wrong with either pick but if I’m the Blazers, I’m leaning toward the wing man as the best fit for my team. One thing that makes the choice a lot tougher is who is picking second in the draft. That would be Seattle, as in the Seattle Sonics, as in the one team that if Portland happens to pick wrong will not only haunt them for years but haunt them for years in their own freaking backyard.

Who could blame Pritchard if he O.D.’s on Alka-Seltzer before tomorrow night’s draft?

The Sonics, ironically or not, are in a very similar position as the Blazers. They have a decent core of young players and a chance to vaunt up in the title-in-waiting line by virtue of this here draft.

They finished 31-51, one spot behind the Blazers, wouldn’t ya know, and yeah, they’re getting a worse pick. Go figure. They can’t feel half as bad as Celtics and Grizzlies fans, however. Seattle’s roster:

G: Ray Allen
C-F: Nick Collison
F: Mickael Gelabale
C: Johan Petro
G: Luke Ridnour
G: Earl Watson
F: Chris Wilcox
G: Damien Wilkins

They have a key free agent in Rashard Lewis who they would like to re-sign and there is interest in slick point guard Ridnour (Atlanta may offer one of its two first-round picks for him), but there’s little question that Oden is the best fit for them.

I’d really like to see what sharpshooter Ray Allen will do with a dominant big man to ease his scoring load. He’s as good a passer as scorer although he doesn’t get credit for this and Oden showed he could pass out of the post in college.

Either way you can see why Kobe is so intent on getting out of the West. Which returns us to the Lakers bit to trade for KG so Kobe can have a future HOF at his side.
At this point, the deal is pretty much dead. Wolves GM Kevin McHale says he doesn’t want to trade KG within his own conference. That’s why rumors this morning have KG going to the Suns instead. I know, I know, the Suns are in the same conference as the Lakers. What gives?

Who the fuck knows? But I’ll give you S.O.L.’s theory. McHale, as you probably know, is the former Celtics big man who along with Larry Bird and Robert Parrish made up the imposing front line of the title-contending (and twice champion) Boston teams of the 1980s. If there was one truth those guys, it was how much they hated the Lakers. Hate might not even be a strong enough word, such was their rivalry.

I wonder if McHale, of the lunch pail, blue collar worker bee, rip your eyes out school of basketball, has ever truly gotten over it. And let’s face it, Boston nemesis Magic Johnson is a part owner of the Lakers so anything McHale does to help L.A. might just be too much for him to stomach, even if in the long run it means making his team better. (And who knows for sure if it will?)

McHale is considering the Suns deal because, if as rumored Atlanta is in the mix, Minnesota would receive two more first-round picks to go with it’s number 7. Three picks in the first round is a Godsend for a team that needs an influx of young talent and who won’t get a thing for its superstar if he stays for another season and becomes a free agent. As for trading a guy like KG for draft picks, it’s no knock on The Kid in a draft that’s pretty strong from, say, one to 15 or so -- and really, is there that many guys you could bring in right now who would generate the same kind of excitement as their beloved KG? Why not try a bunch of unknown rookies and throw them out on the floor and let them play their butts off and win the fans' hearts, just as KG once did?

If McHale chooses wisely, the Wolves would have, say, Al Horford, Yi Jianlian and perhaps Nick Young or Acie Law, or maybe Joakim Noah and Yi Jianlian. Not a bad group to start off the post KG years, I would think.

As for KG to the Suns? Wow. Who wouldn’t want to see that for a guy who is widely believed to be the classiest guy in the league. But what would Phoenix have to give up to get their prize? Word is that would be Amare Stoudemire, the 24-year-old all-NBA big man supreme. I love KG. LOVE HIM. Seriously, KG, will you marry me? Sorry, I digress but come on, what’s not to love about The Kid? Grace, class, smarts, game. The whole package. But I don’t trade Amare for KG. I just don’t. Amare is younger and he’s mature for his age and as good as he is, we haven’t even begun to see his potential yet. No way, no how.

Would I trade Shawn Marion instead, as the other rumor barks out there? As much as I’d hate to give up the soul of the Suns, I’d say you couldn’t not make that deal.

Whether either will happen is a coin flip right now but a lot of NBA experts feel certain that KG will be moving on draft day.

Where and for what remains to be seen. More after the draft. Stay tuned, sports fans.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Kobe Chronicles, Continued

Pug On a Rug, 2007
Have enough of the Kobe Bryant Soap Opera yet? It's a lot less guilt free than watching an actual train wreck.

Kobe, you may recall, woke up one morning during the week that LeBron James was stealing Kobe's All-NBA crown and realized his NBA ring collection was likely going to stall at three.

Instead of crying into his bowl of Wheaties, Kobe embarked on a long, strange day of schizophrenia, giving a different take on The State of Kobe with every new interview over a 24-hour period. First he wants the Logo to return, then he wants to be traded and then, he’s a Laker for life. A couple of weeks later, he travels to Spain to have a sit down with Lakers owner Jerry Buss because he doesn’t think the organization is clear on his demand to be traded. As if all that flip-flopping came out of somebody else’s mouth.

Well, as it goes with the world of sports and celebrity when the Franchise complains, the brain trust says “how high can we jump for your kingly self.” What they’re really saying is if we didn’t spend a freaking 100 million bills on your ass and give you a God-damned no trade clause, you’d be playing basketball in Memphis right now.

The latest rumors features Minnesota nice guy Kevin Garnet, a.k.a. KG and The Kid, a.k.a. one of the league’s classiest guys, coming to Staples Center to run with the self-labeled Black Mamba, or as we like to call him here at S.O.L., The Black Hole.

According to the very reliable Chad Ford of, the sticking point of the three- or four-team deal with would include the Celtics, Pacers, Lakers and Wolves and players like Jermaine O’Neal, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, is whether the Celtics will give up Al Jefferson to Minnesota. Right now, it’s a deal killer for the Celtics, in part because they have their own superstar to appease in the disgruntled Paul Pierce (get someone to run with me or I’m gone). Just an aside here, but has there been any trio of players from a Championship dynasty that have sucked so badly at being team general managers than Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge? I don’t think so.

If The Kid ends up in L.A., it will be good for his pocketbook in that after spending his entire career in the Midwest, he will finally get that big city exposure he so richly deserves. But pairing him up with Kobe would be like a cosmic joke on Garnett, who has never complained and has endured years of playing for a team being run by a revolving door of officials with heads up their asses; been victimized by the league’s most selfish players who happened to be also be his teammates (hello Starbury and Sam I Am) and along the way lost his best friend to a drunk driver.

If there is a basketball God, Kevin Garnett will end up in Phoenix to play with Steve Nash. It looks very unlikely at this point, but summer’s here and hope springs eternal.

I'm not sure what I make of reports that Kobe still wants out even if they get Garnett. But I do have a couple of theories. (You didn’t think I was going to remain mum on that).

One, as someone suggested to me recently, is that the Phil and Kobe Honeymoon show is over, that Phil once again believes what he said about Kobe in his book two years ago (he’s uncoachable). And Kobe believes that Phil has the upper hand with management, especially since he's literally sleeping with the bosses daughter.

Second, as I’ve already talked about in previous posts here, Kobe remains convinced that there isn't a realistic deal the Lakers could make right now that would make them good enough to compete for a title against the great teams in the West (Spurs and Suns) and the comers (Dallas, Utah, Houston, perhaps Denver and soon-to-be-vastly improved Sonics and Blazers). If the Clippers play to their potential (that’s coin-flip territory right there) and Golden State finally gets its shit together for, I don’t know, a full freaking season, then even a lineup that includes KG and Kobe would still be fighting an uphill battle to even make one of the eight Western playoff spots.

I believe that Kobe is a big-picture guy where his own legacy is concerned. I think he’s always comparing himself to the next guy, always keeping score. You want to see this in a competitive athlete, as long as it’s not pathological.

He saw how Michael Jordan sometimes had to be acerbic in his rise to greatness and I think he thinks that his current petulance is just him being like Mike. "I just want to win," he's been saying for the last few weeks. "I want to go somewhere where I'm not a scapegoat." This is like that guy who gets a toupee and it looks like a toupee but he thinks it’s the shit, even though everybody’s laughing at him. You can’t be a scapegoat, if you’re actually guilty as charged.

I mean who is he kidding? This is the guy who either chased Shaq out of town, or (if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt) didn’t give a shit that the Shaq was going, because it meant he would finally be the man. And now that he is the man, he's jumping ship like a rat with a life preserver on a boat in dry dock. (Probably overdid the metaphor here, but you guys get my drift).

From Kobe’s point of view, even bad behavior can be excused if it’s in the service of winning. It follows then that no matter what anybody thinks of his actions now, nothing will make them forget about Pouting Kobe like a few more rings. And right now, in his selfishly cloistered mind, the quickest route to an NBA title awaits him in the East. The ends justifying the means I suppose.

Meanwhile about that Draft Lottery, word is that the Trailblazers are now leaning toward Kevin Durant over Greg Oden. There’s rumors that Oden may be susceptible for future health problems regarding his recently broken wrist and a disk in his back. I don’t believe the stories. I think it’s just Portland’s way to justify not doing what everyone says is a no brainer – which is taking Oden with the number one pick. I’m of the school of they can't miss either way, and I know this will sound crazy, but I think Durant is a better fit for the Blazers. They already have a really good post player in Zach Randolph. Even if he is a bit of a flake and a knucklehead, he’s gonna give you that 20-10 a night and with a wing man like Durant, the Blazers will be dangerous. Mark my words. After watching Durant play, I think he will be one of those rare unstoppable scorers in this league from Day One, a LeBron, Kobe, Michael, K.G., kind of guy.

Mets Mojo

I hope I don't jinx my boys but the Mets have begun to rebound nicely from their June Swoon (losing 14 of the first 18 games they played this month). The ugliness was tempered somewhat by the fact that their nearest competitor in the division at the time of the slump was Atlanta and the Braves suffered a similar downturn. However, as the Mets have won four straight, including a sweep of the Oakland A's at Shea this weekend, the Braves just halted a four-game losing streak (in which they scored like one run in 50 innings). So despite playing like shit, the Mets continue to the lead the NL East going into the All-Star break.

Here's hoping the good karma keeps on coming. Go Mets.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Party's Over


S.O.L. was wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong about Lebron? Maybe a little but in time I believe he will become the great player he showed in his stirring march to the Finals. Wrong more about the Spurs.

Never have I seen a team not called the Lakers or the Celtics look so dominant with so much ease. Talk about firing on all cylinders.

I hate the way that Phoenix series played out. I'll forever believe they stole it from the Suns. But once the Spurs hit their groove, not even the Prime Time Lakers could have stopped them.

Tony Parker is a man among men now. A top-five player in the league in scoring points in the paint. -- at 6-feet tall. There's refs taller than he is, folks. Okay he's French. And yeah, he's dating a Desperate Housewife (soon to be married to her) but no way no how never can you call this kid soft. And he's 25 years old, folks.

Spurs are team to beat until someone tells me otherwise.

Welcome to the newest NBA Dynasty. T.D. Parker, Bowen, Ginobli. You might argue not one of them is quite in or finished with his prime.

I'm still in H-town. I'll post more about my adventures soon.

Tonight, the Mets are in the House That Ruth Built, on a losing streak that's their worst in two seasons and against a revitalized Yankees club that has won nine straight. Something's gotta give.

I was right about The Sopranos, wrong about the Cavs. So, what's one more prediction?

Mets win two of three.

Signing off from
Santa Moncia, CA

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On the Road Again

I'm on the road back to L.A. for some meetings again. As much as I'd rather be in my idyllic setting up in Sonoma, the biz keeps pulling me back into Htown.

Wouldn't you know it? This quick two-day trip just so happens to coincide with S.O.L.'s Mets road trip to Dodger Stadium. Lucky for me, I'm going to tonight's game. Though the way the Amazin's are playing these days, I might have to go to the game with a bag over my head.

Struggling is part of a baseball season. That's why there are all books about slumps and superstions. It is a long season - six months, almost seven now that the World Series could go into November. The Mets have injuries to deal with and the pitching couldn't be near perfect all year. So Willie's boys will struggle a bit and hopefully chalk it up to experience. When they find their grove, it'll be lights out.

Speaking of darkness, S.O.L. may have been right about The Sopranos, but I'm looking a bit shaky with my belief in LeBron and the Cavs.

I'm not giving up yet. Let's see how it goes tonight in Cleveland. Boobie is starting. LeBron is pissed. The Spurs have got to hit an oil patch, right?

signing off from
Big Sky Cafe
San Luis Opisbo, CA

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Lights Go Out

Noir Healdsburg, June 2007
The response to last night's "The Sopranos" series finale has been pretty fierce. There's a raging argument on a writer's board where I belong that's drawing some pretty strong reactions.

The Los Angeles Times hated it, reporting that the show's fans felt "robbed". So did Hollywood inside blogger Nikki Finke, who said it was "terrible". But the New York Times and dug it.

The verdict is that the majority of viewers hated it and felt cheated. Boohoo.

I loved it. I mean I loved it as soon as it happened and I still love it right now as I sit here and write about it. I thought it was perfect. And I've been telling my friends for weeks that I thought Chase would go out quietly, that he would not take the obvious route out.

This show has always been more about family in America than crime in America. It has been about the narrow line between doing good works and being selfish, about the battle between the workplace and the American Dream and raising a family in a world where people fly planes into buildings on lovely September mornings. So what if the family happens to be murderers for a living? It's the normalness of their life at home that captivated us. It's how easily we were able to relate to them and how similar they are to us, much more than we so smugly imagine.

And it was always going to come back to family. Nobody knows what the future holds for any of us. Why should Chase have to lay it out like paint-by-numbers? What's wrong with saying, "look, we’re just turning the cameras off on these people but nothing ends, nothing ever really ends." Life goes on. With you or without you. Birth, life, death – the world spins on.

If Chase owes us anything (and I'm not sure he does), it’s the purity of his vision and his art. And he delivered that at a consistently high level for seven years. I never felt this show had a major misstep. (The only stumbles I felt were when Nancy Marchand died because I think Chase wasn't finished with Livia).

It felt more like a novel to me than a series and I’ve always watched it as a whole body of work, rather than an episode or a series of episodes or even a season.

Any other sort of ending would seem cheap to me. There’s not going to be a ‘wrap up’ movie because that would make everything before it meaningless. I would go as far as to argue that if you were surprised by this ending, then you weren't paying attention to what Chase has been doing for the past seven years. He left clues in every corner, almost every week.

What are we left with then?

Somewhere out there, the Soprano family is doing its thing, for better or worse.

Life goes on.

How fucking perfect is that?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Game 2 - Do or Die

Looking Up
I didn't say it was going to be easy.

To call tonight's NBA Finals Game 2 a must win for LeBron and the Cavs is stating the obvious but I think it's interesting how few observers seem to be giving them a chance. San Antonio's dominant performance in Game 1 is a big reason for this but I'm still not backing off of my prediction of a Cavs series win.

I think LeBron will not be as easily shut down as he was in Game 1, if only because every time a team has slowed or stopped him, he's found a way to make them pay the next time. If anything was apparent after the Cavs stormed back to beat Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was how quick a study of the game LeBron is. I expect nothing less from him on the biggest basketball stage there is. This is going to be LeBron's domain for foreseeable future. He has already shown his understanding of these moments and how important they are for his legacy. And he’s never said he wants that legacy to be about anything but winning.

The Spurs played great in Game 1. They almost played a perfect game. But still, if you take out the can’t-miss third quarter where the Spurs opened up a 15-point lead, the Cavs were pretty much in the game. The Spurs lead at the half was five points. If the Cavs stay within a basket or two of that, their fourth-quarter 13-4 run might have helped them steal the game.

I saw signs of LeBron figuring out the defense in the fourth quarter. He was getting better looks and the coaches were getting him into better position to make shots. I also think the Cavs were surprised at the intensity of the physical play under the basket. You would think after playing Detroit, it wouldn’t get any tougher but there’s a degree increase when you get to the Finals. Refs seem to let the teams play more and they allow more contact. If you’re gonna score, you’re gonna have to earn it.

This almost always is a shock to players playing in their first Finals. It takes two or three quarters to get a feel for it and I think that and the hyped up feeling that’s natural for first-timers, might have put the Cavs at a real disadvantage.

It’s a big hill to climb but I like the Cavs chances of stealing Game 2.

Ciao Familia

I’m a t.v. writer and while I don’t say much about it here, I can’t let tonight’s “The Sopranos” final go by without a personal goodbye.

I don’t know if it’s the best show ever on t.v., but it sure was unique. Creator David Chase and his staff created not merely a series, but a weaving, sometimes meandering turnpike through the soul of America, pitting our trumped up pseudo morality against our insatiable appetite for violence.

You can trace this back to the first season when Tony, on a college trip to Maine with his daughter Meadow, discovers a former colleague turned informant. When he sneaks off during one of Meadow’s interviews to garrote the rat to death with his bare hands, you are without even realizing it, rooting for him to succeed. When the guy’s eyes bulge out and he breathes his last breath, dropping to the ground in a heap, it is a satisfying moment for Tony – and us. It’s these sorts of feats of magic that make this show so compelling and kept me turning in faithfully.

I think Chase will choose to fade out rather than go out with a bang, because his series has always been so novelistic, and as outlandish some of his characters, his anchors have always been real life. Or it could be a bloodbath. But I will miss "The Sopranos," if only because it’s one more smartly written show leaving the airwaves, but what I’ll mourn is the failure of American television (especially the networks) to learn the right lessons from this show's success. That is that characters count and stories need room to grow, that chopping up one-hour dramas into more parts rather than less is killing storytelling. That we need bad characters as much as good ones, that wrong vs. right doesn’t necessarily have easy answers and that the audience is smarter than we think.

The hole in my heart might yet be filled by David Milch’s newest series, “John From Cincinnati,” which follows Tony’s last hurrah tonight on HBO. I have high hopes for this series and the coming season of “The Wire,” and trust HBO will keep the good stuff coming.

But allow me a moment to grieve for what feels like the end of an era.

Thanks David Chase et al and the fabulous cast and ciao Tony and Chris and Sil and Paulie Walnuts and Janice and Hesh, Meadow and A.J., Bobby and Big Pussy and Uncle Junior, and Dr. Melfi of course and Tony's ducks and Carmella. Especially Carmella.

Un amico non è conosciuto finchè è perso. (A friend is not known til he is lost. - Italian Proverb).

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

King for a Day ... or More?

LeBron's highlight reel Game 5 against Detroit will stand out as one of the greatest playoff performances in NBA history for sure, but only a casual NBA fan would be looking for LeBron to repeat that same performance in Game 6.

He didn’t match his 48-point score whenever, wherever, however performance. If anything, he did better.

In Game 6, which turned out to be the deciding game as the Cavs topped the Pistons for their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, LeBron scored only 20 points. But his 14 boards and eight assists were both team highs.

His own offense was overshadowed by a previously unknown second-round draft pick rookie, who poured in 19 of his 31 points in the key fourth quarter.

Even without leading his league in scoring, LeBron had his stamp all over the game. This series will be remembered for LeBron’s maturation. And if he can turn it into a victory in the Finals, which begin Thursday night in San Antonio, it will go down as his career-defining moment.

LeBron gets it now. He has learned how to win and more important he has learned how to win under the brightest lights on the biggest stage and in the enemy’s gym.

The reason Daniel Gibson was open -- wide open -- for those three-pointers in Game 6 was because the Pistons knew they couldn’t win without stopping LeBron. What they didn’t realize was that LeBron has learned that he could lead his team to victory without shouldering the scoring burden.

There have only been a handful of players who could control a game without scoring. Few realized that LeBron was in this category before this series.

Sure, LeBron has unstoppable scoring machine in Game 5 was beautiful to watch but that’s not what validates greatness. It was Saturday night’s Game 6 that will solidify LeBron’s place in basketball history.

He took exactly what the Pistons gave him, which wasn't much. He handled the ball on almost every trip down the court. Instead of forcing up shots, ala Kobe Bryant (go watch the 2004 finals) he tried to find open teammates, and he hit the boards. What other superstar player not named Steve Nash would pass up the glory of scoring just to get a win? What other superstar understands the nanosecond-by-nanosecond flow of a game so completely, that his instincts – to shoot or not to shoot – are almost always correct?

It's a freaking short list, people.

LeBron led his team in rebounds and assists and for the series, he averaged nearly a triple double. The most telling thing about LeBron's game is his ability -- at only 22 years old -- to read and react to defenses from moment to moment. On top of that, he's somehow convinced a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time group of players that they are title contenders.

LeBron has become a true leader. He's got his team believing in him and themselves. This is no small accomplishment in professional sports. I seriously wonder if any player so young has been able to accomplish so much with so little talent on his team.

This is why I’m predicting LeBron will lead his team over the Spurs in the NBA Finals.

Yeah, I know. Crazy, huh?

Maybe not.

Nobody has given the Cavs a chance. In Vegas, the Spurs are 2-1 favorites to win in five games.

The Spurs are the smart pick for sure.

They are peaking at the right time. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli are healthy. Tony Parker is getting better and wiser every year. They have the deepest bench in the playoffs. They have the best active coach (all due respect to Philip) in the NBA. And they've already been to the mountaintop three times. This Spurs team has never lost in the NBA Finals. And, they have home court advantage.

With all that going for the Spurs, why should the Cavs even show up?

Here's why.

First off, the Spurs Western Conference run, while impressive, was easier than it could have been. Phoenix was the series that was supposed to be the default NBA Finals – the two best teams left in the playoffs. But Robert Horry, Amare Staudamire and David Stern turned that into a dud. Golden State had already taken out the number one seed, which left the Spurs to face the young, inexperienced and ultimately overmatched Jazz.

Not surprising then, the Spurs dismissed them with professional ease.

Second, the Spurs have not faced a defense as good and as disciplined as the Cavs. Anyone who paid close attention to the Cleveland-Detroit series, knows the Cavs out-played the Pistons on the defensive end.

And San Antonio plays offense a lot like Detroit. The Spurs like to run a measured half-court offense, feed it to Duncan on the blocks or use their guards to drive and dish to open three-point shooters.

After watching them take down Detroit, this might not surprise the Spurs, but the Cavs should be able to slow them down, which will keep the games close. And keeping the game close is the key to this series.

Because in the playoffs (as we've seen this entire postseason) close games come down to the fourth quarter. Especially those last seven or eight minutes, it's make-or-break time. The intensity ratchets up higher and then keeps going up impossibly more and more. These are the moments that separate the winners from the also-rans.

These are pros. They’re supposed to be able to hit a three with a hand in your face. But what about hitting a three with a title on the line and your palms are sweaty besides and the ball is slick and your heart is pounding so hard it’s making your hands shake?

Can you make that shot? Or will you apple up and clank it off the rim?

If the two teams find themselves in a close fourth quarter in this series, you might say that a team as experienced as the Spurs would have the overwhelming advantage.

But like I said earlier, the Spurs have hardly been challenged this playoffs. Sure, they’re peaking but is it because they’re finally jelling or is a mirage? Is the reality really that they’ve had a relatively easy road to the Finals?

On the other hand, Cleveland was just baptized by fire.

LeBron & Co., had to look into their own hearts, had to battle the odds of being down 0-2 in a seven-game series. And they not only survived, they came out as a totally different team. You want to talk about peaking, look at the Cavs.

And they’re fresh off of a war, while the Spurs had a comparatively easy series with Utah. While the Cavs fought off the Pistons, the Spurs were at home watching and waiting – and more likely than not hoping for a Cavs win. Because before their collapse against the Cavs, the Pistons were the proven winners. The one team you didn’t want to face.

Well, now that’s the Cavs.

The Cavs, you might be interested to learn, who went 2-0 against the Spurs this season. The Cavs who right now have the league’s best player, this year’s Dwayne Wade, the one guy nobody can stop. Not even defensive grand master Bruce Bowen.

The Cavs who have an active shot-blocking seven-footer and some very nice interior defenders. A host of decent shooters. A tougher complimentary player in Larry Hughes and a coach who was schooled at the Gregg Popovich’s side (he was with the Spurs back when they won their first title).

What I'm saying is the games are going to be close. And if they’re close, I think the Cavs can win. Not just with LeBron's offense, but with his leadership.

I'm picking the Cavs. In six.

LeBron’s earned his crown. Now it’s time for him to wear it.